Obama Poised To Leave Office With The Taliban More Powerful Than He Found It

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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With the U.S. set to cut its forces in Afghanistan by nearly half by the end of the year, and an expectation for a violent Taliban fighting season ahead, President Obama is set to leave office with the Taliban the most powerful it has been since 2001.

U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, spent the last three months investigating the security situation in the country. The results of his investigation are currently secret, but they are not expected to be promising, given the Obama administration’s recent announcement that it will be giving commanders more leeway in support operations, including close air support.

A United Nations report confirmed late last year that the Taliban now controls more territory than at any point since 2001. This point has been reiterated and affirmed by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Today, analysts and experts believe that the group’s influence is even more pervasive.

“They probably either control or heavily influence about a half of the country,” Bill Roggio, an expert on Afghanistan and editor of the Long War Journal, told The New York Times in late April. Roggio’s most conservative estimates say that the Taliban controls at least 20 percent of the districts in the country.

The Taliban’s resurgence has coincided with an increase in violence. A U.N. report released in February noted that there were more civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2015 than any year previously recorded.

At one point, the Taliban was broken, or so the Obama administration said during the troop surge in Afghanistan. It was an easy assumption to make, as the addition of 33,000 troops did help clear the Taliban from its historical strongholds in the southern part of the country. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran noted in a piece for Foreign Policy, it also at least temporarily helped employ Afghan men, develop the Afghan security forces and pursue reconstruction efforts.

Fast forward four years and the Afghan National Army (ANA) has been able to keep the Taliban from reestablishing itself along the rugged Afghan-Pakistan border, an historic safe haven. But where there have been gains in one area, there have been significant losses in others. Like many insurgent groups though, the Taliban has avoided large ANA deployments and has instead leaked into areas where the army is not present.

Obama has touted the importance of focusing on Afghanistan since his first presidential campaign. In retrospect though, it appears that Obama’s desire to get out of Afghanistan was not far off from his obsession to get the U.S. out of Iraq.

The Afghan question in the early days of the Obama administration centered on the surge. The argument over the surge was one of the first major internal divisions over foreign policy in the Obama administration. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said he needed a troop surge. His military colleagues agreed, as well as certain key voices in the Obama administration such as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Vice President Joe Biden was the premier skeptic, while Obama himself also held reservations.

McChrystal wanted 40,000 troops to surge into Afghanistan and break the insurgency. He wouldn’t get all of them, but he did get most. But even with the surge, it was never the Obama administration’s objective to truly put an end the Taliban, nor was it George W. Bush’s until the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaida was the concern, and it just so happened that the Taliban, as al-Qaida’s protector, was in the way of that objective.

Vice President Joe Biden made the administration’s priorities clear when he claimed “the Taliban per se is not our enemy” during a 2011 interview with Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

Unfortunately for the administration, attempts to reconcile the Taliban and Afghan government have been a series of continuous failures since they started.

It was, and still is, difficult to parse out and separate the threat posed by the Taliban and al-Qaida to the Administration’s goals in Afghanistan since the U.S. first invaded. The two organizations are undoubtedly distinct, but they both have been responsible for destabilizing the country, engaging in terrorist and insurgent attacks and hindering rebuilding efforts. Both groups also share a bond that has existed for decades.

“The alliance between al Qaeda (sic) and the Taliban goes back decades, almost to the founding of both groups.” wrote Paul Miller, a former NSC staffer for both Bush and Obama, in Foreign Policy magazine in September 2014. “They literally fought in the same trenches in Afghanistan’s civil war.”

By the time the Afghan surge was over in September 2012, it was not clear that the Taliban had been truly mitigated, or that the surge had even worked. When NATO officially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan two years later in December 2014, the Taliban claimed victory.

“We consider this step a clear indication of their defeat and disappointment,” said a Taliban statement in response to NATO’s change of mission ceremony. “America, its invading allies … along with all international arrogant organizations have been handed a clear-cut defeat in this lopsided war.”

To be sure, the Taliban had been pulverized by the NATO International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in the 13 years since the invasion. If the group had secured any kind of victory, it was only that they were still barely in existence.

In the nearly two years since its outlandish victory announcement, the Taliban has undoubtedly made a real comeback. Al-Qaida has been largely relegated to a secondary threat to Afghanistan’s security in comparison to the Taliban’s reemergence in the last two years. The group is still a surefire threat, but the Taliban’s destabilizing presence has allowed the Islamic State to establish a small, but relevant presence in Afghanistan.

When NATO changed its mission in Afghanistan from a combat to a support role, it also changed its primary focus from al-Qaida to the Taliban. The “Resolute Support” mission is intended to assist the Afghanistan government in securing its country, but in many cases that has resulted in fighting off Taliban advances. Al-Qaida has also been targeted, but the group certainly has not been the focus.

Warmer weather in Afghanistan typically means the start of the fighting season, and military officials and experts alike are expecting the Taliban to take full advantage. Afghan forces saw a 28 percent increase in fatalities in 2015, a drastic increase from the approximately 5,000 that were killed the year before, according to a NATO report seen by the Associate Press.

With a new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada taking over the group from the recently droned Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the potential for more conflict is ripe.

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